It takes the right sort of administrative leadership in a school site to build trust through relationships that in turn foster teacher leadership and autonomy. This mindset casts a wide net of benefits for all school staff and especially students as it promotes a sense of worthiness and belonging. Glover Middle School is such a school with Principal Mark Lund and Assistant Principal Dan Jenkins practicing leadership that Northouse (2019) describes as “high supportive – low directive style”, that has forged a culture of community and care in staff and students alike. Glover Middle School runs on a neighborhood system – five interdisciplinary neighborhoods that have all been given names by the teams: Dreamteam, Realteam, Legendary Learners, Innovators and Trailblazers. Seamless teamwork is the core of Glover’s lens, sustained by an expertly designed building that inspires a free flow of interaction and visibility through its open-plan layout.
I recently took a day to observe the inclusionary practices and collaborative teaching in one of these neighborhoods. This particular neighborhood boasts 100% LRE for their students with disabilities, who are given instruction with their peers with a truly inclusive design. I met up with the Special Education Teacher, Crystal Farnsworth, and English Core Teacher, Katy Hayes, for the day to watch how they collaborated teaching eighth-grade students English. The two teachers share a large classroom space that can be partitioned off with a movable panel, symbolic perhaps of the service that is offered to their students–flexible according to needs.
At the beginning of each class period, these eighth grade students gathered on one side of the room, where, with little prompting, they each wrote their name and a key number on a sticky note. This number, copied from a rubric on the wall, indicated their academic and/or emotional needs for that particular lesson. For example: 1 might indicate that they are struggling with a particular assignment and need lots of help from the teacher. The number 5 might indicate that they are feeling confident with their assignment and need no assistance. The task presents the opportunity for the students to reflect, assess their needs and have voice and choice with their learning experience, which is a key component of inclusionary practices. The teachers then gather these notes, group the students by the numbers they have listed, resulting in students learning at their ‘needs based’ level while maintaining high levels of expectancy.
Another example of barrier removal was the class rule of listening to music. For the first 10 minutes of class, a red card is on the wall that reminds students of the expectation of starting their work, after which, providing students have engaged and started, the card is turned green when they have the choice to listen to music through personal devices. Another observation was the choice of seating; students sat where they were comfortable, some in low chairs, higher chairs, on actual tables, some in pairs, others groups and some alone. Regardless of where they sat, they worked and the teacher moved around the classroom checking in. The actual assignment was a project-based comprehension check of a choice-board selected text by each student. I took the opportunity of asking individual students why they had chosen their text and received a multitude of answers ranging from liking a character, thinking the story might be funny, more visuals, or the length of the text. They were also given a choice in engaging with the text and demonstrating their learning. Each student had to meet some kind of written response, but it varied and offered opportunities that enhanced skill, knowledge, creativity and imagination.
In Glover, much value is placed on building trusting relationships between students and teachers which brings a feeling of safety to the students while taking on more responsibility with their learning. Many teachers worry about losing control in the classroom, yet here is evidence that young students respond positively to the agency and trust placed in them. The lessons addressed the three major concepts of universal design which are: Affective (the Why of learning) – providing multiple means of engagement; Recognition (the What of learning) – providing multiple means of representation; and Strategic Networks (the How of learning) – providing multiple means of action & expression. Addressing the students’ individual learning styles did not necessitate more work or individual lesson plans; it was about changing a mindset, prior planning and collaborating meaningfully with others. Interestingly, there were two particularly poignant notes from the day: First, I was unable to identify the students in the classroom with IEPs, and second, I did not see one student distracted with their phone. The students seem to be responding positively to these new concepts, and although change is a slow process, Glover Middle School has continued to work hard through the challenges to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all.